U.N. Envoy Critical of Gaza Living Conditions, Threats to Annapolis Initiative

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 26 -- Living conditions in the Gaza Strip have deteriorated significantly as a result of Israeli restrictions on travel and trade, threatening the health of Gazans and impeding the peace initiative the Bush administration launched three months ago in Annapolis, according to the United Nations' top Middle East envoy and humanitarian relief official.

"There is a growing sense of disquiet about the state of the political process," Robert H. Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council on Tuesday. Serry warned that developments in Gaza have created a "dangerous cocktail" that is both deepening the suffering on the ground while "damaging prospects for a two-state solution."

The U.N. envoy applauded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for pursuing peace talks in the face of widespread public skepticism over the prospects for success. He proposed that Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority take the lead in developing a strategy to dampen tensions in Gaza by ending the Israeli siege and the expansion of Israeli settlements, as well as halting the Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. "The Annapolis process can only be sustained by real changes on the ground," he said.

John Holmes, United Nations emergency relief coordinator, warned that humanitarian conditions had grown increasingly grim since Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power in June. Most industrial and agricultural activities in Gaza have collapsed, leaving more than 80 percent of the population dependent on food aid, he said. Rates of anemia and diarrhea among children, meanwhile, have skyrocketed by 40 percent and 20 percent over the past year.

Holmes said that Hamas -- formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement and which claimed responsibility for a Feb. 4 suicide attack in the Israeli town of Dimona -- must accept "its full share of responsibility for the suffering in Gaza." Holmes and Serry said Hamas had done little to halt militants from using Gaza as a launching pad for hundreds of rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli towns, particularly in Sederot. They also cited an increase in smuggled arms and foreign militants into Gaza.

But Holmes said Israeli's military response has been disproportionate, and that it would only promote Palestinian extremism. "The effective Israeli isolation of Gaza is not justified. . . . It amounts to collective punishment and is contrary to international humanitarian law," he said. "Moreover, it does not appear to be having the desired effect either in halting the rockets or weakening Hamas' position among the people of Gaza. . . . Only those who want to see further radicalization can be happy with the present situation."

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, faulted the U.N. envoys for focusing too intensively on the consequences and not the causes of Gaza's troubles, and he denied that Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza violate international law. Gillerman said conditions in Gaza would change in a "split second" if the "indiscriminate, vicious, rocket attacks against Israeli schools and kindergartens and cafes and restaurants" came to a halt.

"Israel has no intention and is not trying to hurt or to punish the people of Gaza," he said. But he said Israel would continue to do everything to "fight the vicious and cynical enemy and terrorist organization of Hamas."

The Palestinians' representative, Riyad Mansour, said the U.N. briefing provided a vital "reality check" on the state of the political process and the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank.

He said he hopes the Bush administration will "play a bigger role" in trying to mediate a political settlement. "The United States is a very close friend to both sides, and a closer friend to Israel," he said. "If they want to see a peace treaty concluded between the Palestinian side and the Israelis before the end of the year, 2008, I believe it could happen -- it could only happen if there is political will."

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